The votes are in, the verdict has been proclaimed, and guess what: I lose. A novel that I panned quite emphatically a couple of weeks ago -- "A Flag for Sunrise" by Robert Stone -- has by now made the rounds of the reviewers and has been pronounced, with what seems to be unanimity, a work of genius. I am, so far as I can tell, a minority of one.
People whose judgment I value have praised the book extravagantly. John Leonard of The New York Times, whose views must always be taken seriously, describes "A Flag for Sunrise" as "an exalted thriller" and "the best novel of ideas since Dostoevsky . . ." Walter Clemons of Newsweek writes: "It is now clear that he is the strongest novelist of the post-Vietnam era . . . Stone writes as if announcements of the death of the novel had not reached him." The New Republic loves the book; so do Time Magazine and the Miami Herald and the Baltimore Sun, and heaven knows how many other publications that have not crossed my desk.
Yours truly, by contrast, dismissed the book's political rhetoric as "windy sentimentality" and found the novel as a whole to be "tiresome." Though I would not for a moment withdraw or modify these judgments -- if anything they strike me as excessively charitable -- I confess to feeling somewhat uncomfortable out there on my limb. In the court of literary opinion, going it alone is not always a pleasure.
It all boils down to the question that continually confronts anyone who reviews books or movies or architecture or box tops: "Am I right?" To be sure, in matters where de gustibus is the prevailing rule, there is no such thing as "right" or "wrong"; what seems a masterpiece to one reader or viewer may seem a disaster to another, and who is to say that either is "right"? Yet in the little world of books, just as in the little world of film or art or anything else, there nonetheless exists a critical consensus; it is this that the reviewer, excepting of course the professional iconoclast, violates with trepidation.
That consensus is shaped by many forces. At certain periods a single powerful critic, or group of critics, speaks with such a magisterial voice that it strongly influences others; in this country there has been no such voice since the death nine years ago of Edmund Wilson. Certain authors accumulate reputations that finally become so imposing as to render them sacrosanct; this happened some time ago to Saul Bellow, and it seems now to be happening to John Updike. And there are other pressures, arising from within the worlds of publishing and journalism, of which the public is unlikely to be aware.
One of these involves the close relationship that invariably develops between the individual reviewer and the publishing community. In sorting through the staggering volume of new titles brought out each season, the reviewer is assisted by the candor and good judgment of the publicists who represent the publishing houses. Over the years the reviewer comes to trust -- and like -- certain publicists; when one of them comes to him with an enthusiastic recommendation, he has ample reason to approach that book with a positive attitude.
This interacts with the subtler pressure that emanates from the world of journalism: the herd instinct. All the reviewers get the same messages from the same publicists; at the same time these reviewers are in occasional, if irregular, contact with each other -- frequent contact if they inhabit the literary precincts of New York City. Word gets around fast: Knopf is high on "A Flag for Sunrise", Viking thinks "The White Hotel" is a masterpiece, and Random House loves "Gorky Park." For certain books a consensus begins to build well before their actual publication; for reviewers who worry about their standing within the fraternity, going against the flow can seem a risky and unpalatable business.
A further problem for the reviewer is that good books do not come along all that often. Writing negative reviews, seeming to be a grouch, can be a bore. So when a book arrives that seems considerably better than the run of the mill, when a respected publisher is solidly behind it and there appears a real possibility that a serious writer can enjoy a commercial success, the temptation to leap in with a thundering "major" review is very strong. I know because I have been there: with "Herzog," with "The Confessions of Nat Turner," with "Ragtime," with "Robert Kennedy and His Times." Traipsing along with the rest of the crowd I badly over-praised these books; I was concerned that to express a negative opinion, in the face of all these books had going for them, would be "wrong."
Which is, when you think about it, a great disservice to the person who, in the business of reviewing, matters most: the reader. Too often we forget that reviews are not written for authors or publishers or other reviewers, but for the people who read the newspapers and magazines for which we write. These people presumably read our reviews because they trust our judgment and want our opinions about new books they are thinking about buying. But what repayment of that trust is it to parrot, whether consciously or not, what amounts to a company line? What "service" does that provide for the reader?
I am not saying that the critical hubbub over "A Flag for Sunrise" is necessarily a phenomenon of this sort -- though there are certainly elements in the publication and promotion of the novel, and in the novel itself, that made it from the outset a likely candidate for instant, coast-to-coast immortality. My judgment of the book may be hopelessly mistaken; I may be "wrong." But obviously I do not believe that, or I would not have written what I did -- knowing, as I wrote it, that I was going against the critical grain.
This, mind you, was no act of courage; I have the courage of a door mouse. It was simply a manifestation of a stubborn skepticism I had developed about literary hype. This skepticism swept over me several years ago, as in a flash of light, while I was reading proofs of a novel by John Cheever called "Falconer." The book had arrived with advance publicity appropriate to the second coming; obviously it was going to be praised to the skies and sell like crazy. But after reading it I said to myself: "This is a piece of trendy, pretentious junk." I decided to say the same in my review, though in somewhat more polite language, and I also resolved that I would never again let my concern about the critical consensus prevent me from speaking my mind.
Which is why, having spoken my mind about "A Flag for Sunrise," I find myself all alone in my own little corner. But I'm betting that after a few more people read that novel, I'll have plenty of company there.